Imaginary Numbers

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The Cradle of Man

Outside Magaliesburg, South Africa


Marius lifted the heavy steel door of the warehouse. It rolled up with a dusty clatter, revealing a concrete floor with drainage holes once used as an abattoir. Behind him, a band of movers in sweaty primary coloured t-shirts carried in newly purchased lab equipment. The landlord, a leathery white man with a moustache, potbelly, and khaki shorts stood next to Marius, asking about the machinery.

“I’m a scientist,” the actor explained.

“Oh goed,” the man said in a heavy Afrikaans accent. “Dese days Magaliesburg don’t have enough smart people. All we got is petrol stations and biltong shops.” He slapped Marius on the back, and extended his hand. They shook a firm shake and the man added, “Better lock up, jong. Some burglaries ’round here last week.”

Ja, Oom, I’ll lock up.”

Goed, man. Goed. If you need anyfing call me. I’m just on on the other side of the koppie there.” The man pointed with his sausage fingers to an area beyond a rocky hill that jutted out of the golden grassland.

The area was on the outskirts of civilization. It was a tiny settlement of farmers next to an ancient river that has, over millions of years, cut its way through a massive sandstone ridge. In the village of Magaliesburg, which was a single intersection with one general store, speckled chickens ran free, and through the dirt streets Bantu women carried goods balanced on their heads. An solitary, gnarled camelthorn tree, provided shade for the ever-present store owner, who could usually be found eating a popsicle on a plastic garden chair outside.

In the years after the Truth and Reconciliation Process, white farmers have been giving up their large lots of land, afraid of violent crimes in such an exposed area, and gradually anything that can be used has been scavenged from their properties. When Marius drove through the area in which his grandparents once owned a farm, it looked so different. Even the barbed wire fencing had been stolen, leaving only the ruins of the farm, reclaimed by the tall grasses of the savanna. The area of Magaliesburg had become a mere refilling point for travellers heading north to SunCity, a massive casino resort. The few people who came to visit the caves near Maropeng, where, it is said, a group of primates made that first evolutionary step towards humanity, never stayed longer than a few hours. It was for this reason that he selected the place. It was isolated and remote. Also being close to an international telescope array, no one would ask questions about the truckload of scientific equipment he was transporting.

Driving through the area that he remembered like a sepia photograph from his youth, he recalled sitting with his grandfather on the stoep of the farm house. The air smelled faintly of wood smoke. The cloudless African sky bright. He remembered looking out over a corn field, tall maize planted in parallel rows. That morning, his grandfather looked at him and said, “Marius, my boy, let me show you something.” His Oupa was a firm man, whose stoic face seldom betrayed himself with a smile. The man took his tin coffee cup along as they walked onto the dewy grass, grasshoppers scattering as they go. He walked with young Marius towards the field, guiding him with a solid hand on his shoulder.

When they arrived at the edge of the corn, his Oupa picked up a loose ear of corn fallen next to a tall grassy plant. He gave it to Marius.

“Last night, we had a visitor,” he said.

“Who was it, Oupa?”

“It was a monkey, some aap, who tried to steal our mielies.” His grandfather kept walking down the row of corn, picking up ears of corn and handing them young Marius. After a few meters, Marius had his arms full of freshly picked corn, stacked up like firewood.

“Oupa?” he asked. “What are we doing?”

“We’re picking up after our visitor.” Then his Oupa told him how every once in a while a greedy baboon would come and pluck some corn. The animal would place the ear, neatly tucked under its armpit. Then it would move on to the next plant, pick the next mielie, and tuck it under its arm too. In the process, the first one would fall out. The baboon would go along, picking one after another, until it ran out of plants, but it would leave with only one tucked under its arm. The remaining mielies would be left lying in the dirt next to the plants. The baboon, in its greediness, had failed to collect more than a few ears of corn. It spent all night picking them, but failed to make any gains.

“Greed,” his grandpa told him as they carried the corn back to the house, “never pays off.”

He remembered this story as he unpacked the instruments, computers, and lab equipment.

Within a few hours, the abattoir had been transformed into a crude laboratory. Marius had ordered the machinery he knew was necessary from a firm in Cape Town, and shipped it by a land route his ancestors, the Voortrekkers might have used long ago in a time of wagons and carts. Finally, when everything was in place, he thanked the crew of men, offering them a case of beer, which they drank outside, sitting along the plaster wall in the narrow trapezoid of shade.

Once he was alone, he unzipped his red Swiss duffle bag, and watched as an excited clay meerkat leapt out and danced in front of the large man.

“Hello little guy,” he said and rubbed his hand along the animal’s coat. “I’m gonna make you some friends.” Marius, stood up and inspected his make-shift lab. He had learned a lot from the professor in the last few years, and returning to the country of his birth, he felt a bit conflicted. Not because he had been gone so long, or that other Afrikaners would call him a traitor for leaving, neither because he had missed the death of both his parents and lost contact with his only brother. He felt uncertain how to act. Marius, who had been absorbing more and more of the professor’s persona, felt an innate urge to slip back into Afrikaans, to become the boer he was raised to be. Inside him a battle raged between the actor, who was so good at his job that he believed himself to be a scientist, and the boy who grew up catching snakes and sailing beetles like miniature kites. The red dust of Africa coated everything, rising into the air like a blood-coloured mist, a reverse terrestrial sunshine that floats upside-down on the horizon.

Marius didn’t waste any time. Under the cloudless, wide blue sky, he stripped off his shirt and started digging into the red earth. The sun beat down on his chiseled form, and the clay meerkat stood on two legs, watching the vast empty veldt for predators.

When the sun started to set, an immense orange circle hovering over the dusty plain, Marius had amassed a mound of sand, and he was ready for the production process.

The equipment he had ordered was top-notch, and large enough to contain an animal twice the size of the baboon he had created in Geneva. He was not afraid that things will get out of hand, choosing to believe that the baboon was merely frightened by the broken pressure tank. First, he told himself, he would make a family for his little pet from the tub of yellow sand he brought along from Switzerland. Families are cut from the same cloth, after all.

Over the next few days, Marius crafted a number of small animals: rats, meerkats, and a rabbit, which he released into the veldt. The meerkats stuck around, forming a familial bond, and much like in Marius’ youth, they nested under a rock and asked gingery for a daily egg, which he provided with delight. The machinery worked well, and the lab was set for phase two. Marius was excited. When the lady at the general store asked him how his farming was going, he lied and told her that things were going well. He politely called her ‘auntie’ and asked her where he could get some real boerekos, some folk food. Happy to oblige, she gave him a tupperware container of left-overs out of her fridge, and sold him one of her handmade pies.

He survived on this while he built a large clay aardvark. The animal resembled a skinny piglet with a longer snout and tall elliptical ears. He built it with joy, adding in the anteater’s long tongue, and tiny claws. The electromagnet hummed as he removed the creature. This one, too, was a great success and when he released it, he watched it swing its snout back and forth, trying to find the scent of termites. The gentle creature waddled into the rising dirt towards a towering yellow ant hive, and Marius and the meerkats waved him off, shouting “watch out for lions!”

The next animal he created starts off as a bush baby, a nocturnal, leaping monkey with large eyes and satellite dish ears, but he got distracted when the meerkats killed a snake outside. Marius watched the spectacle and decided that he would, after all, build an imaginary creature, something the world has never seen, something that would be even better at surviving than a real animal. He determined that if he was going to play God, he might as well let his imagination run free, so when he returned to the earthen monkey on the table, he sculpted a snake head onto the tail, and gave it tiny batwings. He knew that the animal would be far too heavy to fly, but considered the wings an artistic elaboration.

With a giddy laugh, the modified bushbaby leapt out of his warehouse and darted into the tall grasses. Marius felt more proud about this than anything he’d created to date. He determined to fabricate more of these imaginary creatures, and while sitting under the thorn trees in front of the general store, he sketched up hyenas with long, horselike hooves; gorillas with elephant tusks and a long lizard tail; and even a rhino with sabertooth tiger teeth and a furry mane.

“What are you drawing there, son?” the lady asked in Afrikaans.

“Oh, tannie, I’m just keeping busy,” he said and thanked her when she brought him some rooibos tea. “It’s a bit of a lonely life here in the country.”

Ja, natuurlik.” She shooed away some chickens and sat down on her plastic chair. “There’s no place for young people to go in Magaliesburg. That’s why they all go to the big city. These days it’s only old people on the farms. They are the most vulnerable, you know.”

He nodded at her. “Yes, I can understand that.” He had forgotten how concerned people in South Africa are about crime. The lady filled him in on all the burglaries, murders, and hijackings that happened in the area. He just kept sketching and nodded.

“The latest one, you won’t even believe,” she said. “Oom Marais, who lives close to Maropeng was hijacked yesterday by a band of women!” She waited for a reaction. When Marius looked up, she continued. “They held a cooking knife to his throat and took everything—his wallet, his car, his shoes, everything. One woman told him that they would rip their clothes and accuse him of rape if he went to the police.”

Ag nee,” he said, and shook his head. Once a week he sat with the lady and talked. He missed the human interaction. But his relationship with the woman was unusual in that, for once, he wasn’t acting. He was simply Marius van Niekerk. It was strange for him to witness the real Marius reflected in the woman. She didn’t see in him any trace of Geneva, or of the professor who he had been imitating almost by second nature these days. But it still felt good. He could be proud to be a real boereseun, a polite, strong, independent man, who calls older men ’oom’, and ladies ’tannie’.

When he finished his tea, he thanked the woman, and she gave him a tupperware container of leftovers. On the way home, he stopped along the road where a black man was selling avocados. He pulled over and heard two men arguing loudly in Zulu. The vendor laughed and told him that one man believes he saw the tokoloshe, an evil spirit. When they heard the word, the two men stepped closer and spoke to Marius in English.

Maneer,” the one man said frenetically, “I swear I saw ’im. Little evil thing. He tried to climb into my wife’s bed.” Marius smiled.

“What does the tokoloshe look like?” he humoured them as he paid for his fruit.

“Dis man!” the other guys shouted with a big white smile, “He iz crazy!” Then he shoved his friend forward. “Go on. Tell ’im about de spirit.”

Tokoloshe is well…” he hesitated, “well, he looks like a monkey. Like a nagapie with a snake tail and wings. Iz very evil.” The other two men laughed at him.

“Crazy!” they yelled.

“Not that crazy,” Marius interjected. “I believe him.” He just couldn’t resist taking some credit for his handiwork. He wanted to tell them that he had created this spirit of theirs, but then rubbed some dust out of his eye and said, “I saw it too.” The other two men laughed even harder. They thought he was joking with the superstitious man.

“Mister, I thought you was a good, honest man!”

“No, I’m serious. I saw something like you described.” They looked at him. “Really.”

“Get out of here. You whites don’t know tokoloshe!” The man seemed disappointed, and Marius knew his cue to exit. The other two just laughed, as he drove away in a trail of dust.

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